Hope doth butter no parsnips

I have been marinating an idea for my “holiday card” to each of you thoughtful readers, albeit delivered electronically over the information superhighway, anchored by a logical analysis of this holiday’s most annoying carol — The 12 Days of Christmas — augmented by a bit of fact-checking, economics, and common sense.  So fasten your seatbelts… it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.


I’ll begin by debunking the idea that the carol is a cleverly-coded primer in Catholicism intended to teach children the faith.  I will confess that I used this mnemonic method when I was a catechist preparing teenagers for Catholic Confirmation (33 years ago); I tried to have a bit of fun with the kids (jeezy creezy… get your mind out of the gutter thoughtful reader!) and so I would have my class sing The 12 Days of Christmas with the kids “separated” into groups (each responsible for adding one of the "days”) and substituting “The Lord God" as the gift giver instead of their true love — "on the [X-th] day of Christmas The Lord God gave to me …”

  • 12 drummers drumming representing the twelve points of doctrine in the Nicene Creed
  • 11 pipers piping representing the eleven remaining disciples after Judas skipped-out on paying his part of the bill at the last supper leaving the others to pitch-in extra to cover his part of the meal (which was more because he had a starter)
  • 10 lords-a-leaping representing the Ten commandments, known as the “Decalogue"
  • 9 ladies dancing representing the Nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
  • 8 maids-a-milking representing the Eight Beatitudes
  • 7 swans-a-swimming representing the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit (also the Seven Sacraments of the Church)
  • 6 geese-a-laying representing the six days it took God to create Earth as recorded in Genesis (the book, not the English prog-rock band)
  • 5 golden rings representing the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the “Pentateuch”
  • 4 calling birds representing the four gospels and their authors — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
  • 3 French hens representing the three Theological Virtues — Faith, Hope, and Charity
  • 2 turtle doves representing the two books or “sections" of the bible — The Old Testament and The New Testament

with, of course, a single partridge (representing Jesus, and the Holy Spirit bestowed at Pentecost) in a pear tree (calling to mind the apple tree containing the forbidden knowledge of good and evil as symbolized by an apple in the Garden of Eden, but now a pear to show that the taking of this fruit, in communion, cancels the penalty for the disobedient apple-eating by our first parents).

Though effective (and fun), there is no evidence, as is sometimes suggested, that the song was used by early Christians to impart knowledge of the faith during the 4th century persecution (the Diocletianic Persecution).  The librarian William Studwell, a historian who specialized in researching the origins of songs, such as Christmas carols, college fight songs, circus music, and patriotic tunes, stated:

This was not originally a Catholic song, no matter what you hear on the Internet. … Neutral reference books say this is nonsense. If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was derived from the original secular song. It’s a derivative, not the source.

Derivative.  Not the source.  Meaning someone far more clever than me applied the Catholic faith to the pre-existing and seemingly tailor-made carol to use it (as I did) as a teaching device.  Sorry to burst your bubble.

Let’s turn our attention to the economics, as so many of our fellow Americans are feeling the pinch this Christmas due to the strain the out-of-control coronavirus pandemic has placed on household incomes.  Since 1984, the PNC Financial Group has calculated the prices of the 12 gifts from the carol based on current market rates.  The total cost of all the gifts bestowed by the singer’s true love, when you count each repetition of each verse of the song for a total of 364 presents, is $105,561.80, which is actually 38% less than 2019; PNC accounts for this cost-saving by pointing to the restriction on gathering for live performances given social distancing protocols, unless it’s a Trump Rally, meaning you save on drummers drumming and pipers piping.  Some parts of the country shut down bars and nightclubs, so you save on ladies dancing.  And of course if you live in a town like mine with a large gay population, you won’t have to shell-out any money for lords-a-leaping, which is a relief, pandemic or not — there is nothing more annoying than trying to dip your crusty French baguette into a nice bowl of savory broth with a sherry wine vinegar gastrique and trying to enjoy it while some guy in a leotard is doing a temps levé next to you!

The swans-a-swimming are the most expensive gift — your true love will pay $13,125 to buy all of them in 2020 — and are probably a bit of an extravagance.  But more to the point, when added to all the geese, calling birds, French hens, turtle doves, and partridges, just imagine all the bird shit.  In light of this, you really have to question whether the singer’s true love is in fact their “true" love!

Which brings me to another point, both of practicality and propriety.  You’ll be happy to learn the cost for eight maids-a-milking held steady this year at $58.00 per maid due to the fact that the Federal minimum wage for housekeeping staff remained unchanged from 2019 to 2020.  However, I feel obliged to point out that the singer’s true love has not provided any livestock suitable for milking, meaning either (1) the singer will incur the additional expense of providing his or her own dairy animal (a cow or a goat I presume), or (2) the maids are engaged in a-milking each other which would not be suitable if there are small children in the house but does have the benefit of being more cost effective.

I do wish each and every one of you health, happiness, and hope this season.  With vaccinations against COVID-19 underway (I signed paperwork this morning to receive my first dose this week), and a new presidential administration which will place the needs of the nation before its own in the offing, we are poised, I feel, to make a new beginning.  This season entreats us to bring about “peace on Earth,” and to show “goodwill toward all;” now more than ever do we need to heed its call.  We need to reach out to those with whom we disagree, recommit to the pursuit of truth, resolve to correct injustices, and remember how fragile, ephemeral, and precious life is.

I began this year with a post entitled A cautious optimism is called for not knowing of the gathering storm which, just yesterday, saw public health officials in my county announce our ICU bed capacity had dropped to 0%; within a month of that post, we were seeing the first effects of the coronavirus in America, and today it is almost impossible to imagine “the time before.”  I began this blog in 2017 with a post entitled Let’s stay on track not knowing, but anticipating, the storm that was gathering across the country politically; now four years later, it is almost impossible to imagine “the time before.”

But both these things taught me a valuable lesson.  Progress is not guaranteed.  Progress relies on people working together to bring it about; it does not simply happen.  People working together to build “a more perfect union.”  Unlike things such as the Law of Gravity which exerts its power upon us whether we cooperate with it or not, we have to work at achieving the values which make us the United States.  This season rolls around once a year to give us a reminder that it is never too late to make a new beginning.

And that’s my holiday message — hope for the new… vaccine, administration, year.  But hope doth butter no parsnips, a phrase I concocted from a saying dating back to 17th century England — "Fine words butter no parsnips” — which expressed the idea that even the best words count for nothing and that action means more than highfalutin ideals.  To put it another way, hope for a better tomorrow is great, but it’s not enough… there is work to be done to bring it about.

By all of us.

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